The Irishman 2019 ***

irishman

There was once a discipline and economy to making a feature film; directors complained, but cinema-owners could only show a film so many times a day, and even video-tape cost money. The digital age allows Netflix to give directors carte blanche to make films of any length, and last year’s bloated awards magnet Roma is followed by 219 long minutes of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Perhaps there’s a good film in there trying to get out, but handicapped by a rubber-faced CGI cast and over-familiar material, The Irishman is a limp, late return to happy hunting grounds for Scorsese.

Scorsese has a reputation as a master of cinema; Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas are all electrifying movies. What they have in common in style is the glamorisation of real-life criminal behaviour, and striking busts of violence. As a result, Scorsese has a large following with imitations as brazen as Todd Phillips’ Joker. But when the director tackles other subjects, in comedies like After Hours, or reverent biographies like Kundun, or literary adaptation like The Age of Innocence, or religious drama like Silence, and one thing’s for sure; the audience won’t show up. Bullets through brains is what Scorsese’s audience want, and the Irishman has plenty of that.

Don’t expect the old-school killings of The Godfather here; in The Irishman, executions happen at Grand Theft Auto speed, a flash of a weapon and a fountain of blood. Indeed, Robert DeNiro even looks like a video-game character, his gait awkward at every age he portrays as hit-man Frank Sheeran. We start in the 1950’s, and finish up four decades later, with the changes marked by the roll of history on Frank’s tv screen. Sheeran works his way up to a position serving, and then betraying, his boss, Teamster Jimmy Hoffa, played energetically under melting candle make-up by Al Pacino. Business associates come and go, with Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston and others milling around the edges, and even old pals Joe Pesci and Hervey Keitel get in on the act.

As always with Scorsese, the editing is crisp, the cars and clothes are ideal, and there’s some absorbing scenes; a discussion about fish takes on great meaning. Robbie Robertson contributes an ideal score to compel the viewer through any lapses of conversation, while the needle-drops are always on point. But the length is hellish and self-defeating; this is a tv show, not a movie, and Frank’s story is lazily told without discipline. As with Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese seems happy to find a unreliable story-teller and credulously set everything the say down as gospel truth, offering a narrow view, and a woman or morality-free text. Every time Frank mentions an explosion, the film stops to show it, an effect that comes close to self-parody, although the sight of rows of yellow cabs being dumped in the river is an arresting one. Steven Zallian’s dialogue similarly suffers from clichés; to paraphrase, it’s all ‘Jimmy the Snake taught me one thing; you never wanna cross Blind Willie McF*ck…’ Reflections on family and justice are marginalised by forensic attention to fashion and music.

Those who ignore all Scorsese’s other work will lap up the sudden shootings and the macho badinage of The Irishman, which is based on a book by Charles Brant. But the rubbery faces will put off casual viewers; The Irishman often looks like cut-scenes for a video-game, with mottled skin-tones and slick hairstyles that distract from what the characters say. There would be no place for an expensive dud like The Irishman at the cinemas; even on streaming, it’s likely to vanish quickly as a bizarre footnote to Scorsese’s career.

Dolemite Is My Name 2019 ****

dolemite

Who was Rudy Ray Moore and why should be care about him in 2019? This comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy is a superficial but undeniably entertaining Netflix-lite account of the 1970’s comic who rose from club gigs, concert records and eventually Blaxploitation cinema to become a significant cultural influence. For Murphy, who has vanished from the big-time scene for some time, playing Moore gives him a chance to get back a mojo that’s been posted missing for decades, and Dolemite Is My Name certainly provides that showcase.

Moore is introduces as an unsuccessful hustler, tying to get a foothold with a uninterested record store DJ Raj (Snoop Dogg); in a script written by the team who brought us Ed Wood (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), the trajectory of Moore’s career is obvious from the moment he listens to a passing vagrant telling jokes, and realises that there’s nothing in his day’s media that reflects that culture. Club MC-ing comes easily to him in character as Dolemite, and making records in people’s houses propels him to a cult success. But a viewing of the comparably austere worldview contained in Billy Wilder’s 1974 film The Front Page inspires Moore to go a step further: enlisting the help of a playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to create a movie, despite knowing almost nothing about what that might entail. The presence of funny performers like Titus Burgess and Craig Robinson has already provided a rich garnish for Murphy’s imitation of Moore, but a higher comic gear is achieved when Wesley Snipes enters as D’Urville Martin, who acts and directs alongside the inexperienced Moore, and who suffers long and hard for his art; for Snipes and Murphy, Dolemite gives them a chance to shine, and they grab it with both hands.

What’s less impressive here is that Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer, has little to actually say about Moore, comedy, or cinema aside from breathlessly relating a legend of financial success; Moore isn’t allowed a private life, or even a sex life, and most of his problems only occur to be resolved in the following scene. It’s the kind of approach that featured in The Wolf of Wall Street; print the legend and nothing else. The only characters not immediately in thrall to Moore are those who haven’t worked out how to make money from him; for a 2019 audience, without any real context beyond a few seconds of Wilder’s film, Moore’s routines, bravado and sexism don’t seem particularly amusing in themselves, however painstakingly brought to life.

Dolemite is My Name is the kind of rags to riches story that’s easy to relate to, and Moore’s approach to film-making makes for an entertaining film. But Brewer doesn’t actually make many points other than you can make a lot of money making blue jokes, denigrating women and acting out stereotypes. It’s easy to see why Murphy related to the idea of making this film, and there is likely to be a substantial audience who share his interest, even if the result seems to airbrush its subject to gain mainstream acceptance.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80182014?source=35

The Laundromat 2019 ***

the-laundomat-2019-meryl-streep-netflix

Stephen Soderbergh has promised to retire so many times now that it’s tempting to organise a Kickstarter whip-round to get him a carriage clock and hope the door doesn’t hit him on the backside on the way out; at least we’d be spared sitting through such yawners as Side-Effects, The Good German, The Girlfriend Experience or Haywire. His latest, The Laundromat, takes the Panama Papers as a subject in the style of The Big Short, but with none of the energy or focus. There’s a certain interest in the cast assembled, and the subject is a timely one given that legislation clearly needs to change, but Netflix is hardly a non-profit, charitable institution. And given that Netflix are currently being sued or under investigation for tax evasion in several countries, the ani-corruption lecture The Laundromat ends on feels more that a little misplaced, focusing attention to the company’s own business practices.

The draw name here is Meryl Streep, and the powerful opening scene for her character grabs the attention as she loses her husband, in a sequence mirroring a real-life tragedy where a scenic tour boat was capsized. Her character, Ellen Martin, finds herself given the run-around from various insurance companies, and the scene is set for a thorough investigation of shell companies, wealth management and various other aspects of the 21st century financial ball-game. Except Ellen’s story is soon swamped by a number of other all-star elements, none of them very compelling and a few, including Steep in another role, badly misjudged.

Worse still is a framing device featuring two slices of processed ham from Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, who are portrayed as running a dubious Panama law firm and narrate the stories straight to camera. The green-screen work here is poor from the opening cave-man sequence onwards, and the device itself is questionable; why should the one-per cent get to tell the story? And why should eight dollar Netflix subscribers, presumably entertainment seekers, want to listen to a lecture on money delivered by well-heeled actors like Sharon Stone, who reportedly banked $10 million in a pay-or-play deal for Basic Instinct 2? Our fictional Mossack and Fonseca attempt to make a gag of this by pointing out a difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance, but it just feels like Soderbergh is giving himself and his pals a free pass on moral responsibility, shrugging and saying that someone, anyone else is to blame.

The Big Short was no masterpiece, but it at least managed to carry off an irreverent style and give its stars something substantial to do to earn their corn; the famous-face cameos featured here suggest nothing more than a charity telethon, with celebs phoning it in for the cash. It’s no surprise that, to quote an early inter-title, ‘the meek get screwed’ when the exposes are as toothlessly presented as this. As awards fodder, or even as an educational tool, The Laundromat barely gets started, and drops into the same dusty bin as War Machine and other Netflix misfires. That 500 million dollar deal for a 25 year old Seinfeld sitcom can’t come soon enough for a streaming service seemingly out of ideas and out of touch with its worldwide audience.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80994011?source=35

 

Hitman Redemption 2018 ***

hitman

Do you love the Hitman video game? Did you like Timothy Olyphant’s performance in 2007’s Hitman, or did you prefer Rupert Friend’s incarnation in the recent Hitman; Agent 47? Whatever your knowledge of the Hitman IP, you’ll be utterly bamboozled when a film called Hitman Redemption turns up on Netflix UK. Why? Because it is absolutely nothing to do with the Hitman series, and why they should be masquerading as such is anyone’s guess.

This movie was released as Asher during a US release last year, and it stars the always personable Ron Perlman as an aging hit-man who has a crisis when a job goes wrong. Whatever this film’s merits, giving the film the title of a different and far better known IP is a recipe for unsatisfied customers.

Having got all that out of the way, Hitman Redemption aka Asher is a decent little B movie that has a few points of genuine interest. Firstly, director Michael Caton-Jones is a very safe pair of hands, with a few notable successes (Memphis Belle, Scandal, Rob Roy) and an ability to get difficult films over the line (Basic Instinct 2). He uses a bluesy score here to give atmosphere to some fairly rote professional assassin shenanigans, with Asher finding his relationship with his handler (Richard Dreyfuss) under pressure. But there’s a sub-plot involving Asher’s fading abilities, and his relationship with a neighbour Sophie (Famke Janssen) that nearly turns the film on it’s head.

Viewers expecting video-game antics are going to be profoundly mystified by watching Sophie struggling to deal with her mother’s dementia and incontinence, and the contrast between her problems and Asher’s is interesting. And the mother character is played with surprising depth by Jacqueline Bisset, who makes something moving and memorable of her scenes. The action is short and not particularly distinguished, but there’s just enough meat on the bones to suggest why such a strong cast was attracted to this project.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie 2019 ****

between_two_ferns_the_movie_-_publicity_still_-_h_2019_0

Is it too late for Netflix to bring the funny? With Amazon investing billions in established IP like Lord of the Rings, it seems perverse that Netflix’s latest big investment is decades-old episodes of Seinfield to complement decades-old episodes of Friends. Not that these shows aren’t great, but they’re placeholders for new comedy that’s yet to appear. Tapping into existing comedy like Joel McHale didn’t work, even though his show had some great stuff in it, so this harnessing of popular content from Funny Or Die seems like a step towards  giving Netflix an identity based on putting smiles on faces.

Zach Galifianakis has been ploughing an amusing furrow with his talk-show parody Between Two Ferns, originally Betwixt Two Ferns as he mentions in Scott Aukerman’s expanded reboot. There’s elements of Ali G as Galifianakis says and does exactly what an interviewer should not, drawing attention to himself, mis-representing his guests, and just being plain rude; there’s plenty of big names willing to show themselves as good sports. This time around, it’s pretty clear that there was an Avengers movie sending a roster of names to the set; Benedict Cumberbatch, Tessa Thompson and Brie Larson keep a straight face while names, acting talents and personal quirks are insensitively discussed.

There’s also a fresh frame; Funny Or Die boss Will Ferrell closes down the set after it gets destroyed during a sprinkler disaster that nearly drowns a game Matthew McConaughey. Galifianakis and his team head cross-country to find stars and interview them in their homes, and there’s some neatly developed sketches that turn the format on its head; a one-night stand with Chrissy Teigen leads to a troubled visit from husband John Legend. Otherwise, it’s fun to see Jon Hamm, Peter Dinklage, and perennial Netflix self-parodist Keanu Reeves allowing pot-shots at themselves; the good humour is infectious.

The shortness of the interview sections works a little against the premise, but Between Two Ferns: The Movie works far better than, say Ali G In Da House in that it stays true to the interview-based origins of the conceit. And at the centre is a strong comic character; Galifianakis is vain, downtrodden, pretentious, snarky and not as smart as he thinks. There’s mileage in the way he takes down celebrities; in an age when few interviewers pack a punch, Between Two Ferns offers fake takedowns of today’s ‘hot idiots’ in entertaining fashion.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80243600?source=35

Toast of London 2013-2015 ****

clem

Netflix has proved an unlikely platform for audiences discovering tv shows that they’d previously spurned; You was something of a small-screen flop before the streaming service relaunched it last Christmas. Channel 4’s Toast of London is a very different animal, but deserving of re-discovery on Netflix UK and US. The humour is very knowing, and somewhat unique; Stephen Toast (Matt Berry) is an actor who has been bumming around the London scene for years; his high opinion of himself is matched only by his low opinion of others, notably rival Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock). Toast’s agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackirchan) does get him work, but it’s usually pay-the-rent voice-over work that puts him in the orbit of clue-less, drug-addled hipster Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). Toast’s exchanges with all these characters, and with landlord Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), are often agonising but also amusing. From Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews, Toast of London has a wild and experimental edge, with circuitous conversations that end in unexpected ways, plus crude sexual pratfalls mixed with acidic satire of British luvvies. It’s funny, original and is slowly creeping into the mainstream in a way that would make a Toast revival a tasty prospect; a welcome fourth series has been mooted.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80108561?source=35

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein 2019 ****

image

Actor David Harbour presumably had a blank check to cash on the back of his success in Stranger Things; it’s a shame that the actor couldn’t find anything better to do with his Netflix cash than to rest on his family laurels. Harbour has taken it upon himself to exhume footage from his father David Harbour Jr’s excellent TV production of Frankenstein; a classic show, fondly remembered, but ill-served by his son’s piece-meal handling of the footage here. Harbour’s grandfather, the great David Harbour III must surely be turning in his grave, as must Mary Shelley’s poor, beknighted creation. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many of the ideas here have been done better elsewhere; the iconic meat commercial featured here was ripped off shamelessly by Transformers star Orson Welles for his Frozen Pea performance art installation, and the abrupt commercials, plus the rickety doors and windows of the set were an obvious influence of Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows. Even the title is a clear spin on Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it’s hard to imagine that an actor as storied as Harbour isn’t aware of that text, or even of the IMDB itself where such information might freely be found! Still, there’s some vague amusement to be found as Harbour questions those who remember his father, with faded stars like Alfred Molina, Kate Berlant, and newcomers like Mary Wonorov and Michael J. Lerner, still remembered from the Back to the Future films. It would have been better to use Harbour’s ill gotten gains for a full restoration of The Actor’s Trunk, a much admired show given precious little screen-time here, than on this miserly cash in on the Harbour family jewels. Perhaps Harbour’s proposed sequel, tentatively pre-cancelled at Amazon Instant Now Video Today and titled Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein; The True Story, should be made just to set things right.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/81003981?source=35